For political journalists and junkies alike, "Meet the Press" under Tim Russert was the first and last word on U.S. politics. Period. Tim knew the issues and candidates better than anyone. And he analyzed both with a deep sense of history and razor-sharp political instincts. At his best, no one topped Tim Russert.
Tim just KNEW, and we knew to believe him.
When Tim Russert announced on May 6, 2008 that "We now know who the Democratic nominee's going to be, and no one's going to dispute it," we knew, without question, that he was correct.... not because his pronouncement made it so, but because he fully understood political realities better than anyone else.
Tim Russert was good because he loved politics. And because of his passions, he did his homework. Always. We could tell that he lived and breathed, and today, died doing politics. My guess is that he would have had it no other way... albeit decades from now, not at age 58 years old.
Baby-Boomer Chronicler of Baby-Boomer Presidencies
Baby-boomer Tim Russert was the moderator of NBC's "Meet the Press" from 1991 to 2008, during the entire presidencies of our only two baby-boomer presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And Tim Russert passed away just as the baby-boomer era of presidential politics also seems to be passing away.
I wasn't a fan when Russert indulged in his "gotcha" style of journalism. About an MSNBC-sponsored Democratic debate held on September 26, 2007, I wrote:
"Russert used (misused?) the time not to illuminate the issues or to inspire discussion by or between the candidates, but to trap, to trick, and to otherwise humiliate... thereby creating highly repeatable, quotable soundbites and national election ammunition for Republicans.
"For example, the following is a small sampling of the impossible-to-answer, lavishly detailed, demeaning quasi-questions posed by Mr. Russert during the debate... "
And I echoed that sentiment again in November 2007 about post-debate Clinton camp complaints regarding Russert's questioning:
"I've long observed that Tim Russert is an interview bully who deliberately seeks to trap, to trick, and to otherwise humiliate political leaders... not to inspire discussion of the important issues facing Americans. Often, Russert's questions are obviously pointless except as a tool to take down the powerful."
Fact is, baby-boomer Tim Russert's modus operandi was eerily reflective of the political modus operandi used by the two administrations he covered, baby-boomer Presidents Clinton and Bush: tricky, full frontal, dramatic, and unabashedly impolite and impolitic.
Russert: Visionary Mentor to Post-Boomer Political Journalists
Just ten days before Mr. Russert's tragic demise, post-boomer generation Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for the presidential race. And pollster after pollster credited Sen. Obama's victory over baby-boomer Hillary Clinton to American voters tiring of the same old politics of division and trickery and drama.
Few people seriously question that Americans are fed-up with the bitter partisan divides in D.C. under the two baby-boomer presidents. And are equally fed-up with the brand of "gotcha" journalism occasionally practiced by Tim Russert.
Here's the odd thing, though. Tim seemed to understand that in recent months. He seemed to understand that the times were changing. And he enthusiastically embraced the next generation of political journalists... a cooler, more analytical, less confrontational breed.
Russert, also a Senior VP of NBC, masterminded the hiring of NBC/MSNBC political director Chuck Todd in 2007, plucking the talented Todd from internet obscurity at The National Journal's Hotline. Mentored by Russert, generation Xer Todd has transformed the face of broadcast political journalism with his non-partisan, half-bemused, coolly analytical take on all candidates and issues.
Chuck Todd, hired and mentored by Tim Russert, is the perfect journalistic reflection of the rapidly-approaching post-partisan Barack Obama era, just as Russert was the perfect reflection of the dramatic political vagaries of the Clinton/Bush era. And not by coincidence, Todd is today the very toast of MSNBC political news coverage.
Russert reached out, as well, to other young, new-breed political journalists in recent months, most notably Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com, while the other news organizations have stuck to tried-and-true veterans. (See the "Meet the Press" photo above of Russert with Todd and Cillizza on September 16, 2007.)
As we mourn the sudden, tragic passing of political journalist Tim Russert, I say that it's time to also celebrate Mr. Russert's smart vision of the future of political journalism.
Like always, Tim Russert was a step ahead of the rest of us. He KNEW.
(Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)